News On Drugs In Sport Essay

Fans hold up a sign during a 2004 game between the New York Mets and the San Francisco Giants. Giants slugger Barry Bonds has long been accused of steroid use. Al Bello/Getty Images hide caption

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Al Bello/Getty Images

Fans hold up a sign during a 2004 game between the New York Mets and the San Francisco Giants. Giants slugger Barry Bonds has long been accused of steroid use.

Al Bello/Getty Images

The Unedited Debate (1 hour, 52 minutes)

Produced for broadcast by WNYC, New York.

The debate over athletes' use of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs has taken on newfound urgency in recent months.

A report by former Sen. George Mitchell, released in December, mentioned dozens of baseball players as having used steroids and described their use as "widespread." Track star Marion Jones pleaded guilty to lying to investigators about steroid use in October. And last summer, several riders were dismissed from the Tour de France on charges of using banned substances.

Those who oppose the use of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs say that the athletes who use them are breaking the rules and getting an unfair advantage over others. Opponents of the drugs say the athletes are endangering not only their own health, but also indirectly encouraging youngsters to do the same.

Others maintain that it is hypocritical for society to encourage consumers to seek drugs to treat all sorts of ailments and conditions but to disdain drug use for sports. They say the risk to athletes has been overstated and that the effort to keep them from using performance-enhancing drugs is bound to fail.

Six experts on steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs recently took on the issue in an Oxford-style debate, part of the series Intelligence Squared U.S. The debates are modeled on a program begun in London in 2002: Three experts argue in favor of a proposition and three argue against.

In the latest debate, held on Jan. 15, the formal proposition was, "We should accept performance-enhancing drugs in competitive sports."

As the debate began, it was announced that former Olympics sprinter Ben Johnson, who was scheduled to argue in favor of allowing drugs, had pulled out on the advice of his lawyer because of his involvement in a lawsuit. Johnson was stripped of his gold medal in the 1988 Olympics after testing positive for steroids.

In a vote before the debate, 18 percent of audience members supported the motion to accept performance-enhancing drugs in competitive sports, and 63 percent opposed it. Nineteen percent were undecided. After the debate, 37 percent of audience members agreed with the proposition. Fifty-nine percent opposed it, and 4 percent remained undecided.

The event was held at the Asia Society and Museum in New York City and moderated by longtime sportscaster Bob Costas, who hosts NBCs Football Night in America and HBOs Inside the NFL.

Highlights from the debate:

The next debate, on the proposition "America Should Be the World's Policeman," takes place Feb. 12.

Kevin Wick / Longview Photography

Excerpt of Balko's argument.

Radley Balko, a senior editor and investigative journalist for Reason magazine, says: "So what is this debate really all about? I'd suggest it's about paternalism, and it's about control. We have a full-blown moral panic on our hands here, and it's over a set of substances that, for whatever reason, has attracted the ire of the people who have made it their job to tell us what is and isn't good for us. Our society has an oddly schizophrenic relationship with pharmaceuticals and medical technology. If something could be said to be natural, we tend to be OK with it. If it's lab-made or synthetic, we tend to be leery. But even synthetic drugs and man-made technology seem to be OK if the aim is to make sick people better or broken people whole again."

Kevin Wick / Longview Photography

Excerpts of Fost's argument

Norman Fost, professor of pediatrics and bioethics at the University of Wisconsin, says: "I ask you in the audience to quickly name, in your own minds, a single elite athlete who's had a stroke or a heart attack while playing sports. It's hard to come up with one. Anabolic steroids do have undesirable side effects: acne, baldness, voice changes ... infertility. But sport itself is far more dangerous, and we don't prohibit it. The number of deaths from playing professional football and college football are 50 to 100 times higher than even the wild exaggerations about steroids. More people have died playing baseball than have died of steroid use."

Kevin Wick / Longview Photography

Excerpts of Savulescu's argument

Julian Savulescu, professor of practical ethics at the University of Oxford, says: "To say that we should reduce drugs in sport or eliminate them because they increase performance, is simply like saying that we should eliminate alcohol from parties because it increases sociability. So our proposal is that we allow a modest approach. ... Our proposal is enforceable, it frees up the limited resources to focus on drugs that may be affecting children, which we grant should not have access to drugs ... As we've argued, performance enhancement is not against the spirit of sport, it's been a part of sport through its whole history, and to be human is to be better, or at least to try to be better."

Kevin Wick / Longview Photography

Excerpts of Michael's argument

George Michael, a sportscaster and creator of the program Sports Machine, says: "I am not willing to pay the price for legalizing steroids and performance-enhancing drugs, because I've seen too often what it can do. I don't want to go to the cemetery and tell all the athletes who are dead there, 'Hey guys, soon you'll have a lot more of your friends coming, because we're going to legalize this stuff.' The only good news out of it? They wouldn't hear the news. Because they're all dead."

Kevin Wick / Longview Photography

Excerpts of Murphy's argument.

Dale Murphy, a former Major League Baseball outfielder who started the iWon't Cheat Foundation to help rid sports of drugs, says: "We need better testing, harsher punishments and people will decide not to get involved with performance-enhancing drugs. Gambling in baseball is the perfect example. The culture of professional baseball players is the one thing they know, and one thing they learn from the minute they sign a professional contract, is that if you gamble on the game in any way, shape or form, your career will be over."

Kevin Wick / Longview Photography

Excerpts of Pound's argument.

Richard Pound, chairman of the World Anti-Doping Agency and a partner in the Canadian law firm Stikeman Elliott, says: "The use of performance-enhancing drugs is not accidental; it is planned and deliberate with the sole objective of getting an unfair advantage. I don't want my kids, or your kids, or anybody's kids to have to turn themselves into chemical stockpiles just because there are cheaters out there who don't care what they promised when they started to participate. I don't want my kids in the hands of a coach who would encourage, condone or allow the use of drugs among his or her athletes."

The Intelligence Squared U.S. series is produced in New York City by The Rosenkranz Foundation and for broadcast by WNYC.

Drugs: Sports' Prisoner's Dilemma

The big news in professional bicycle racing is that Floyd Landis may be stripped of his Tour de France title because he tested positive for a banned performance-enhancing drug. Sidestepping the issues of whether professional athletes should be allowed to take performance-enhancing drugs, how dangerous those drugs are, and what constitutes a performance-enhancing drug in the first place, I'd like to talk about the security and economic issues surrounding the issue of doping in professional sports.

Drug testing is a security issue. Various sports federations around the world do their best to detect illegal doping, and players do their best to evade the tests. It's a classic security arms race: Improvements in detection technologies lead to improvements in drug-detection evasion, which in turn spur the development of better detection capabilities. Right now, it seems that the drugs are winning; in places, these drug tests are described as "intelligence tests": If you can't get around them, you don't deserve to play.

But unlike many security arms races, the detectors have the ability to look into the past. Last year, a laboratory tested Lance Armstrong's urine and found traces of the banned substance EPO. What's interesting is that the urine sample tested wasn't from 2005; it was from 1999. Back then, there weren't any good tests for EPO in urine. Today there are, and the lab took a frozen urine sample (who knew that labs save urine samples from athletes?) and tested it. He was later cleared -- the lab procedures were sloppy -- but I don't think the real ramifications of the episode were ever well understood. Testing can go back in time.

This has two major effects. One, doctors who develop new performance-enhancing drugs may know exactly what sorts of tests the anti-doping laboratories are going to run, and they can test their ability to evade drug detection beforehand. But they cannot know what sorts of tests will be developed in the future, and athletes cannot assume that just because a drug is undetectable today it will remain so years later.

Two, athletes accused of doping based on years-old urine samples have no way of defending themselves. They can't resubmit to testing; it's too late. If I were an athlete worried about these accusations, I would deposit my urine "in escrow" on a regular basis to give me some ability to contest an accusation.

The doping arms race will continue because of the incentives. It's a classic prisoner's dilemma. Consider two competing athletes: Alice and Bob. Both Alice and Bob have to individually decide if they are going to take drugs or not.

Imagine Alice evaluating her two options:

"If Bob doesn't take any drugs," she thinks, "then it will be in my best interest to take them. They will give me a performance edge against Bob. I have a better chance of winning.

"Similarly, if Bob takes drugs, it's also in my interest to agree to take them. At least that way Bob won't have an advantage over me.

"So even though I have no control over what Bob chooses to do, taking drugs gives me the better outcome, regardless of his action."

Unfortunately, Bob goes through exactly the same analysis. As a result, they both take performance-enhancing drugs and neither has the advantage over the other. If they could just trust each other, they could refrain from taking the drugs and maintain the same non-advantage status -- without any legal or physical danger. But competing athletes can't trust each other, and everyone feels he has to dope -- and continues to search out newer and more undetectable drugs -- in order to compete. And the arms race continues.

Some sports are more vigilant about drug detection than others. European bicycle racing is particularly vigilant; so are the Olympics. American professional sports are far more lenient, often trying to give the appearance of vigilance while still allowing athletes to use performance-enhancing drugs. They know that their fans want to see beefy linebackers, powerful sluggers and lightning-fast sprinters. So, with a wink and a nod, they only test for the easy stuff.

For example, look at baseball's current debate on human growth hormone: HGH. They have serious tests, and penalties, for steroid use, but everyone knows that players are now taking HGH because there is no urine test for it. There's a blood test in development, but it's still some time away from working. The way to stop HGH use is to take blood tests now and store them for future testing, but the players' union has refused to allow it and the baseball commissioner isn't pushing it.

In the end, doping is all about economics. Athletes will continue to dope because the prisoner's dilemma forces them to do so. Sports authorities will either improve their detection capabilities or continue to pretend to do so -- depending on their fans and their revenues. And as technology continues to improve, professional athletes will become more like deliberately designed racing cars.

Categories: Economics of Security

Tags: Wired

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